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The United States maintains a huge stockpile of emergency medical supplies. It's actually the biggest medical stash in the world. And officials have already been dipping into it to help fight the coronavirus. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on what the stockpile program can do in this crisis and what it can't.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Before I was allowed to visit one of the strategic national stockpile sites a few years ago, I had to promise never to reveal its location. I walked past armed guards into a huge warehouse that had a giant American flag hanging from the ceiling. The stockpile programs' then-director, Greg Burel, gave me a tour.
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GREG BUREL: If you envision, say, a Super Walmart and stick to those side by side and take out all the drop ceiling, that's about the same kind of space that we would occupy in one of these storage locations.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So how many warehouses like this do you all have?
BUREL: You know, we have an undisclosed number of warehouses.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Almost everything about these places is secret for security reasons. But I once heard an official say in a public meeting that there were six. The warehouses are placed in strategic spots around the country. Each is packed with medical supplies - all in all, about $8 billion worth. Tara O'Toole is executive vice president of In-Q-Tel and a former Homeland Security official. She says when the stockpile program got started in 1999, it was much smaller and highly specialized.
TARA O'TOOLE: And intended to supply drugs we would need if there were a chemical, radiological, biological or nuclear attack.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So it has material for those threats - like drugs to treat people exposed to radiation, smallpox and anthrax vaccines. But over the years, the stockpile's mission expanded to include flu pandemics and emergencies like hurricanes or earthquakes. It now holds antiflu drugs, along with basic medical needs like IV fluids and kits, bandages, antibiotics, painkillers.
O'TOOLE: It's never going to be as big as you want because it's just too expensive to do that.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: O'Toole says the stockpile is supposed to fill the gap between when an emergency happens and when manufacturers can ramp up production.
O'TOOLE: It's a bridge. It's not a replacement for the private sector.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That means there could still be shortages - take masks, for example. Officials say the stockpile has about 30 million simple surgical masks and 12 million of the more protective N95 masks. That's not going to be enough. Already, Washington state has requested hundreds of thousands of masks from the stockpile and has gotten shipments. More requests are sure to come in. The government says it wants to buy half a billion more masks over the next year and a half.
BUREL: You know, we wish we had everything that we needed on the shelf all the time. But we have to be respectful of the appropriations Congress provides and live within those.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I caught up with Greg Burel, who retired from the stockpile program last year. He said in an emergency like this one, another thing from the stockpile that could be useful is its ventilators.
BUREL: And we can send those out. People can be intubated. And those can help people breathe until they can take back over for themselves.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: How many ventilators does the stockpile have? He wouldn't tell me. He just said a lot. Some public sources I've seen suggest that it's at least 4,000. They're all charged up and ready to go, fitted into kits that are easy to move, like a rolling suitcase.
BUREL: So we tried to think about putting these together in such a way that you can roll it in and use it immediately.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But there might be a problem. If things get bad enough to need all those ventilators, hospitals may be struggling to have enough trained staff to use them. Even though the federal government can provide some supplies from the stockpile, the response to this virus, in the end, comes down to state and local workers. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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